01 Feb I interviewed the sole survivor of the Lake Volstok expedition.
In the year 2012, between late January and the first half of February, there were sixteen days of radio silence from a Russian expedition on Antarctica. The group of researchers had been meaning to reach and study Lake Volstok, a subterranean body of water that laid almost 4,000 meters below the surface, and hadn’t been in contact with the outside air for over 20,000 years.
The initial crew consisted of 8 people, but only one of them returned; she was found by a Norwegian station, 30km away from the supposed entrance to the lake, almost frozen to death and terrified. Hours earlier, she had broken the radio silence muttering simply “help”.
When she was sent back, I was tasked with interviewing her for the Institution. To protect their privacy, her name and the names of her colleagues were changed.
My office was cozy and welcoming when she entered, escorted by guards. She seemed grateful to sit by the fire, and remained silent and still until we were left alone; my superiors believed that she’d feel more at ease with another woman, preferably around her age, that’s why they chose me.
“Welcome, Madame Ivanova. Please take your time, would you like a hot beverage?”
She nodded. I handed her a steaming cup.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Astrid”, I went ahead. She was trembling and her eyes showed fear and suspicion, but her shoulders loosened a little.
“My name is Kristine.”
“That’s a beautiful name. How old are you, Kristine?”
“I’m 37! When’s your birthday?”
After a few minutes of idle talk to have her warm up to me, she started telling me her story. This is a transcription of it, word by word, freely translated by me.
The eight of us had been together at the station for three months before we were sent to uncover this lake, so we were pretty familiar with each other – at least, with our own team. We were two groups of four, taking shifts.
The first group consisted of our leader, Dr. Oblonsky, and three other older men, one of them a professional wilderness photographer. I believe the four of them were in their mid-50s. They were polite but we rarely saw each other or talked.
The second group consisted of the two only women, myself and Anastasia Goncharov, and two younger males, dr. Ivan Yahontov and Miroslav.
I felt blessed to be with them. Anastasia was the younger of us – 29 years old, I believe. The most agreeable person you’ll ever know. Dr. Ivan was funny and openly gay, around five years older than me, and Miroslav was nice and handsome. I think it was inevitable that we got together because of the confinement, but I really liked him. I think we would have dated in a normal environment too.
(To evaluate how his loss affected her mental health, I ask if they were in love.)
I think in love would be an overstatement but I think we were great together. We made plans to see each other after we came back home, since we lived two hours from each other.
(I ask if she had a problem with someone on her group.)
Everyone got along okay, I believe, or at least I was cool with all the others. Dr. Oblonsky was a fine leader, and sometimes one of the guys from his team would have heated discussions with him, but it was all professional. Everyone just wanted to do what was best for our research.
(I ask her how the co-workers felt about her and Miroslav dating.)
Dr. Ivan was our vice-leader, he knew about us and he didn’t mind. And Anastasia knew too, since she was always there. Dr. Oblonsky was never informed of our relationship, or the others. We didn’t think it to be necessary.
The week before the expedition started, Dr. Oblonsky held a meeting with everyone. It was decided that his group was going one day ahead from the rest of us, because they were the most experienced ones. You know what that means – they wanted the discovery all for themselves, and we were only their backup in case they needed to be rescued.
Still, Dr. Ivan gracefully agreed. The four of us weren’t as important as the others, so we weren’t about to make a scene about it. “Considering our age, I’m sure we’ll get other chances”, Dr. Ivan said. Poor him.
We all woke up early on the first day of the expedition. We saw the others off, and they said some things on the radio every now and then.
The entrance to the lake was a big cave, and from then we would have to hike the four kilometers. “We can’t find the entrance”, dr. Oblonsky complained on the radio. Half an hour later, he complained about feeling watched, and then informed us that he found the entrance on the very same spot he had been standing, like it magically opened.
We thought the snow was starting to confuse him. He was experienced, of course, but this was a first time thing for everyone.
After they entered the cave, we understandably lost radio contact. It wasn’t a concern at first. We left the next day at the assigned time.
We too had a hard time finding the entrance. It took us so long that we almost gave up and went back to the station.
(I ask her how they finally found it.)
It was pretty much the same as dr. Oblonsky described. It wasn’t there, then we felt observed, and suddenly it was there. Like Ali Baba and the forty thieves.
Inside the cave was so dark and moist I thought I was going to collapse. It smelled strongly like rotten fish, and our flashlights revealed a deep-red interior, full of bright-white icicles. The ceiling was a perfect arc, no less than 30 meters tall, and the ground had a strange, grainy and wet texture.
It was strangely warmer than you’d imagine. I mean, it was still considerably cold – we measured it and it was 2ºC – but way less cold than the outside. Warm caves weren’t unheard of, but it wasn’t what we expected.
“What are the walls made of?”, Anastasia asked, with curiosity. When she touched it, it throbbed lightly.
The first sign of our companions was a thick rope tied strongly to one of the many ice stalagmites; it indicated that the path went down, and we followed closely.
After walking for around an hour, slightly descending, the floor changed from the grainy texture to something similar to the ceiling and walls – it seemed to be sculpted to look like millions of red bones.
As soon as we stepped on the new ground, there was a noise that made everything tremble, like the roar of a beast, or the loudest of yaws.
Our feet started sinking on a light violet, sticky substance that flowed in reverse – it was coming from the nether parts of the cave, upstream. I jumped back to the grainy part, still safe from the strange liquid, and Anastasia followed.
Miroslav and dr. Ivan had decided to go ahead, but the light violet quickly turned into a thick, dark purple ooze that soon engulfed their feet. At first, the thing only covered they heels, but as the lower end of their bodies literally disappeared, they soon sank and were completely taken by the horrible liquid.
From where we stood, Anastasia and I watched in horror as our two male companions were dissolved alive.
At least it looked painless enough. It was so quick they probably barely realized their bodies were disappearing.
I was paralyzed, mesmerized. Two great people were just gone in less than ten seconds.
“We need to go back!”, Anastasia urged me, and we started running towards the entrance of the cave.
She was leading the way, always looking above her shoulder to see if I was following. She didn’t even see when the stalactites and stalagmites closed in around her like an iron maiden.
My colleague and friend was gone in a second, impaled by sharp teeth, her blood staining the pearly white icicles.
There was no doubt to me now: I was inside something alive. And even worse, I was caught between the teeth of the beast and its gastric juice, all alone.
The icicles remained closed around Anastasia’s body, defying me to try to pass. The only thing I had left was the tightly tied rope, straightened over the pool of deadly acid – probably the deadly purple river wasn’t there when the first group crossed.
Taking a deep breath and leaving most of my equipment behind, I walked over the cable like a funambulist, knowing that falling meant certain death.
God bless my very Russian parents and their desire to see me as a ballerina. It’s been 20 years since I quit, but my feet are still incredibly strong, and I managed to use it as a tightrope while the river was still near.
After a while, the ground – the beast’s throat – was lower and lower, far enough from the cord that I could just hold it with my hands above my head, which was way easier.
I had no real reason to live, but I’m a scientist, dammit. The only thing in my mind was surviving so I could tell the world about what I found.
After reaching the end of the cable, I walked for God knows how long; my knowledge of anatomy allowed me to find my way around the acid and be able to circumvent the large pools of it.
I started noticing some green lumps that floated above the gastric juice, unscathed. Some were small, some were bigger than me – clearly some undigested matter. Is it too far-fetched if I tell you that I jumped in one of them and used it as a boat of sorts? Well, I’m telling you I’ve been inside a terrible giant, so everything else has to be as unbelievable.
That’s how I made it through its digestive system. When I felt hungry, I tried eating a piece of my boat, having nothing else around.
And it didn’t kill me, so I continued eating small chunks of the thing to survive; I don’t have the faintest idea of what it was, but it kept me alive and as well as possible.
I slept and pissed there, in my little boat, and soon the smell of my own waste overwhelmed the smell of dead fishes.
I slept three times before I found the rest of my crew, which means they survived longer than my original group did.
According to my clumsy and imprecise calculations – considering how big was the mouth of the monster – I was near the ending of the beast’s stomach, heading for the first intestine, when I found dr. Oblonsky and the others. He and a second fellow researcher were preserved inside some sort of amber, with terrified expressions on their faces.
They had been alive for a long time inside that thing before dying – hell, they could have been still alive when I passed by them. I just had no way of saving anyone.
The two others were pressed against the sides of the beast’s stomach, like when you crush a particularly fat mosquito on the wall. The light violet liquid dripped from the ceiling, slowly digesting them.
The nature of their deaths made me realize that I’d be dealing with something new: whatever secreted that amber thing on dr. Oblonsky was probably a huge structure that crushed the other two.
This occurred to me just a second before huge strange tentacle-like membranes fell from little crevices on the ceiling.
They seemed to detect living things from the smell, so I did the worst thing I had to do until now: I lied on my belly on the boat and covered myself in feces.
That’s how I avoided being preserved in an eternal scream somewhere no one can reach me or save me.
As the boat headed to the intestines, the sea of acid became a beautiful, ethereal blue. The liquid was calm and crystalline, and I believed it was the infamous lake Volstok. Even the noise – a constant strange whirring – and the horrible smell subsided, giving place to a strange, all-consuming peace.
I saw multiple creatures petrified inside the amber on the sides of the lake: things that looked like algae and jellyfish, horseshoe crabs and sponges, shrimps and sturgeons, sharks and seals, all ancient and eerie. After that, a row of rabbits and frogs, strange penguins, giant butterflies, a primitive man, a primitive bear, three mammoths, and a humanoid taller than 4 meters, in fetal position.
Still on the lake, I travelled for strange chambers, where the clear liquid underneath was filled with strange fossils. Some had twenty eyes, some had three legs and eight heads, some were made mostly of tongues, some were brains with long limbs, some were just indescribable. They blinked and twitched, or moved their heads in my direction to face me, like they were alive but dormant.
The mouth, esophagus and stomach of the creature had been so dark, but the duodenum was filled with a mystical polar blue radiance – the ceiling was full of beautiful crystals of salt that reflected the light like a heavenly kaleidoscope. It was like I was in the very uterus of creation, the starting point of the planet, the birth of things that have been and will be.
I was at the same time taken aback by its horrifying beauty, terrified and intrigued; I wished I had something to take pictures with me, but to travel light on the rope I only kept my clothes, flashlight, and the small radio in case I ever got out. Our cameras were too heavy, and phones made no sense.
After seeing all sorts of inexpressible creatures, my boat entered what I believed to be the giant’s jejunum, that was dark and awful again; instead of a vast lake, I was now sailing again on just a narrow stream.
At this point, I feel like I blacked out for a long time. Thinking back, it’s almost like the monster wanted me to exit his body. Maybe he thought “now that this thing has gotten so far, I’ll let it go”. Maybe it wants the world to know about it. This part is all hazy, but I know that it was horribly disgusting to travel through its ileum.
Being shat by the monster was an indescribable trauma. I’ll just say that I lost my boat and I thought I was going to die by suffocation, but instead I saw the light outside.
I was covered by a jet-black mud, but it melted in contact with the snow. I asked for help on the radio and passed out in the middle of a snow storm; then, when I woke up again, I laughed at the idea of the hypothermia killing me after everything I went through.
So I stumbled until a construction I thought I was seeing in the distance. The rest you know, the Norwegians found me and saved my life.
In my report, I made sure to emphasize that Kristine Ivanova sounded lucid and intelligent – if her story was fake, she certainly wasn’t making it up for attention, but truly believed that it happened. Physically, she looked pitiful, but it was understandable after 16 days lost, the malnourishment, and so many tranquilizers.
My superiors, however, thought it was utter nonsense, just the delusions of a traumatized survivor and never sent her to my office again; I didn’t see Kristina again, but I heard that she died a year after our interview.
For years, I moved on with my life. As a psychiatrist for a governmental agency, I interviewed other people that were lost and told strange stories, some almost as strange as hers, and I almost forgot her.
Lately, I feel ill the whole time, my skin is slightly purple and it’s like these strange lumps pop right under my skin every now and then; they’re painless but very solid, and no doctor was able to give me a conclusive diagnosis.
Maybe I am being paranoid, but they look like small eyes; it reminded me of her story.
On a whim, I decided to Google people who have been in contact with Kristine Ivanova back then – the Norwegians, the guards, even my former boss.
As of today, everyone who’s been around her is sick or dying.
Terrified for my safety, I decided to sneak in a room I shouldn’t and check her file. I intended to review what we talked about, looking for a clue for whatever disease I have.
Her file was last updated a year after our conversation, with a picture of her corpse.
As per the time of her death, Kristine had 20 eyes, and her limbs had turned into tongues.